A Food Conversation: Where Culture And Technology Collide
PSFK chats with Bitten LA Founder Naz Riahi about bio-hacking, wellness and the future of dining
Juice cleanses, meal supplements, healthy fast food drive thrus, on-demand meal delivery crafted by notorious chefs, city eating guides curated by chefs: the act of shopping for, preparing and consuming food is no longer what it once way. Where farmers once plowed their land for sustenance, now restaurants are setting up their own farms in hopes of shaping the future of food. In many cases, experience trumps convenience.
Bitten is a company exploring this intersection where food meets culture & technology, inviting both passionate foodies and industry leaders to come together disruptors of the food space. In advance of Bitten LA , PSFK chats with Founder Naz Riahi, about the trends impacting the local and craft movements.
What are the major themes running across the conference?
The conference is never curated thematically aside from our idea that food is a pillar of pop culture. One thing that stood out in putting together the agenda was that so much of the LA event is about fun. It’s the most creative series of talks we’ve ever had, and that’s exciting. For example one of our speakers, Maude Standish, is doing a trend report on the convergence of food and sci-fi. We also have flavor artist Sean Raspet and Todd Carmichael, who is the founder of La Colombe and one of the most adventurous guys I know. Carmichael was the first American to make a solo trek across Antartica to the South Pole! We’ll have Freya Estreller of Coolhaus Ice Cream and Ludlow’s Cocktails talking about bringing back the Jell-O Shot, and Jonathan Gold speaking about the LA food scene. Our speakers will also cover the ugly produce trend, fighting the LA health department, making crickets palatable and quitting a successful touring band to feed people. So yes, FUN!
We’re seeing a trend at the intersection of abstinence and wellness – does that includes ideas such as fasting?
The intersection of abstinence and wellness is fascinating, but I don’t think it’s going to put fasting back on the upswing. This new trend is something that’s very much come out of the mindfulness movement we’ve been seeing over the last few years and it’s more about conscious and thoughtful decisions as opposed to deprivation. In the food space, that’s manifesting itself in things like non-alcoholic bars and souping, which is more substantive than juicing. As opposed to identifying oneself as a vegetarian or vegan, many people are consciously eating less meat, but not depriving themselves with hard guidelines.
How is the biohacking trend we see in Silicon Valley affecting the food industry?
Extreme biohacking is still limited to a relatively small group of people and the quantified self movement that was adopted more widely is losing its luster. That said, various trends that come from biohacking, like Bulletproof coffee, and their presumptive health and efficiency benefits are ultimately going to be used by food brands for marketing purposes. We’re seeing that the term organic is losing its marketing appeal, and the same with non-GMO. So what’s next? Maybe it’s foods that more prominently boast specific cognitive benefits, or perhaps it’s recommendations on the time of day to eat certain foods. Down the line, we’ll also see nutritional labels affected by this trend, whether it be their prominence or content. MIT’s Food Future COLab is already experimenting with new nutritional info design and testing them out on some products in Target.
How do some of the bio-engineering projects we see developing (bleeding veggie burgers) sit alongside the local and craft movements? Do they contradict, complement or replace the simpler, purer food movement trends?
One of the exciting things about where we are in food today is that people are starting to take a holistic view of what they eat. So it’s less about just eating local or organic and more about being conscious of the environmental and community impact of food. Because of this, bio-engineering can live alongside local and pure food movements. Companies like Fairlife and Impossible Foods are doing a lot to change our perception of the benefits of bio-engineering. They’re humanizing it. For example, when Impossible Foods debuted its highly anticipated Impossible Burger, they partnered with one of the hippest chefs in the country, David Chang, and he added it to his menu at Nishi. There were lines around the block for that! On the other side, chefs like Christina Tosia of Milk Bar are saying that not everything has to be healthy. The honesty in that is appealing to many consumers. It gives us permission to be open to everything.
In terms of food delivery – what trends are we seeing?
The food delivery space is fierce with competition. A lot of people have been talking about vending machines of the future for a long time, but what we’ve seen is that while there have been great improvements, things like the Burrito Vending machine which was a hot topic a few years ago are still novelty. The same goes with cashier-less restaurants. As far as eating out, the human element of preparing a meal is still important and will continue to be. After all, food is a social experience.
There’s also competition in terms of home delivery, namely in the meal assembly kit space (companies like Blue Apron, Purple Carrot, etc.). Then we have the curated restaurant delivery options like UberEats and Maple, but I think the future of home delivery might be in manufacturing. Meal delivery kits are essentially grocery services. They are not manufacturing their own product, they’re measuring out ingredients and assembling a box of groceries together with custom recipes. And the curated delivery is…well…delivery. The real opportunity might be for companies that have their own ecosystem like HungryRoot. They manufacture the meals themselves and deliver them ready to cook. It gives the customer the opportunity to cook something, but is less of a commitment than meal kits are and it offers better margins to the brand.
Bitten is a widely popular Conference that considers food a pillar of pop culture and looks at the space through the lens of technology, creativity, trends and innovation. The next Bitten conference will take place on Friday, October 28 in Los Angeles, and feature speakers such as renowned food critic, Jonathan Gold, who will give a survey of the evolution of the food scene in Los Angeles, speciality food producer Karen Caplan, and CEO of La Colombe Todd Carmichael. Topics will range from the convergence of food and sci-fi to the science of flavor to the trials of quitting a successful band to feed people. The full agenda can be found here and as a special treat, use code PSFK for half-off tickets.